Ideablawg Weekly Connections: From Twibel to Chaucer

This week, I surfed the Internet and did some reading the old-fashioned way – nothing like holding and having a book - so let’s look at the week in review:

1.   Google Glasses are being talked about and well they should! As the next step in computer/human interface, these glasses would really come in useful in the courtroom when you need to bring up that name of a case – you know that name! Google Glasses could tell you that. Of course, Google Glasses can also keep the lawyers busy as in the case of the California woman, who was charged with distracted driving while wearing her special specs. The California law makes it illegal to “drive a motor vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor, or a television or video screen, or any other similar means of visually displaying a television broadcast or video signal that produces entertainment or business applications, is operating” and, as she was also speeding at the time, a puzzled police officer pulled her and her Glasses over. The Judge, however, acquitted the feckless (not specless) woman, as there was no evidence the Google Glasses were operating at the time of the incident. My only question is: how could you ever prove that? Maybe the police need some new technology? Can that laser catch speeders and readers?

2. Peter Ackroyd, a British writer, historian and biographer, has written numerous fiction and non-fiction books, mostly about his beloved London. I have read a number of his books, most notably London Under, about what is found under the city – you’d be surprised what’s there - and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, a fictionalized backgrounder to the good Doctor. I have recently read a raft of his biographies; some from his brief lives series, including Turner, Poe, Newton, and Chaucer. The Chaucer bio was fascinating as Geoffrey Chaucer was a minor Court official, who really only wrote as a side career. He also had some legal training and was used by the Kings (he survived more than one) for delicate diplomatic missions to France and Italy. Not only does Ackroyd give us non-fictional accounts but he usually ties these peregrinations to a fiction book as well. For instance, he did a marvelous re-working (or translation) of The Canterbury Tales and then re-worked them even more to write Clerkenwell Tales. I also recently read his fascinating biography on Charles Dickens. By the way, watch for the Dickens movie to be released with Ralph Fiennes as the venerable, and love-struck (read the book to see why – the movie is called The Invisible Woman) author. Of course, Dickens did work as a law clerk in Chancery Court when he was young and his novel, Bleak House, brings his past experience to life (or death as we are talking wills) with a comedic flare that is both cynical and heartwarming. I have written a couple of blogs on Dickens in the past here and here

3. Back to law and the Internet – this time law and the Smartphone as Courtney Love successfully defends against a defamation case caused by her tweeting that her attorney, in her Kurt Cobain estate case, was “bought off” not to represent her.  Apparently, the tweet was supposed to be “private” and the jurors agreed. A “private” tweet therefore was not considered “twibel,” which is a libelous tweet of course. Not only is this the first twibel case but, I think also the next word to make it as the Oxford Dictionary Word! Selfies is so last month!

4. I have also been reading some law and imagery articles and I have been particularly struck with articles written by Peter Goodrich, who is the Director of the Law and Humanities program at the Cordozo School of Law. His writing is witty, vivacious, and thought provoking. Try reading his article on Specters of Law: Why the History of the Legal Spectacle Has Not Been Written, which speaks of the visible and the not so visible legal tradition that lawyers have constructed. 

Legally Minded Books to Read

In my last posting, we enjoyed some #longreads and today we will discuss even longer ones. The following is my list of 5 legally minded books to read over the holidays:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky circa 1956. This book stays with you. There is no other book, which can climb into the mind of a killer with so much detail, perspective, and pity. The horror of the act is observed in the backdrop of a ruthless Russia, where poverty, corruption, and greed reign. Yet, it is tempered by a beautiful and delicate theme of redemption, which is guaranteed to leave you weeping.

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens circa 1852. I love this book. There is no better opening chapter of a book like this one as the Court of Chancery becomes a metaphor for the thick fog spreading through London like the Angel of Death sweeping through Biblical Egypt when the Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites leave. And so too does the story spread as the wards in Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce weave through the London streets together with delicious characters like Guppy, Tulkinghorn, and Clemm.  The twists and turns in this book is pure Dickens as is the language and the tragic consequences.

3. The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh circa 1973. This is another book, which although I read many years ago, I think and ponder about every now and then. This true crime novel, a first for Wambaugh, chronicles a horrific crime in a California onion field and the subsequent court case, which had far reaching consequences both on a personal and societal level. Wambaugh writes a moving account of a factual case and it reads like fiction.

4. A Void (La Disparition) by Georges Perec circa 1994. This quirky book is the kind of experimental writing I find fascinating. A book written completely without the vowel "e", Perec manages to use this omission or void to highlight the Kafkaesque nature of the narrative. Originally written in French, where the vowel e is even more essential, the book is actually highly biographical. Perec, an orphaned survivor of the Holocaust, finds in his missing vowel the personal themes of loss, limitations, and emptiness.

5. Plato's Apology by Socrates. The wry wit employed by Plato as he excoriates the Senate must be experienced first hand by reading Socrates replay of Plato's trial, judgment, and death. It is brilliant rhetoric. Even to the end, Plato had the capacity to teach. Just as we today have much to learn from his logic and reasoning.

Julian Barnes, Sherlock Holmes, and A Miscarriage of Justice

Yesterday, the British writer, Julian Barnes, won the 2011 prestigious Man Booker Prize. I have read many of his books, some of which are particularly clever, such as The History of the World in 10 and A Half Chapters, with one chapter dedicated to a discussion of Theodore Gericault's 1819 painting of the aftermath of a shipwreck in The Raft of the Medusa.

Barnes also recently wrote a book simply entitled Arthur & George. This book fictionalizes the real-life relationship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and a unassuming solicitor named George Edalji. This semi-fictional account juxtaposes the lives of these two men in the backdrop of one of England's infamous cases of injustice. Edalji, of Indian ethnicity, was wrongly accused and convicted of mutilating cattle and sending poisonous letters in support of the crime. He was sentenced to seven years of hard labour and disbarred until Conan Doyle "took up his case" in a purely Holmesian manner, and managed to clear Edalji's name and restore his law society membership.

This case reminds us that one miscarriage of justice is one too many. In Canada, where such miscarriages have been revealed, not by celebrity writers, but by hard-working individuals, committed lawyers, and dedicated associations, we must be watchful and protective of justice and the repercussions of injustice. 

On September 15, 2011, the Canadian Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Heads of Prosecutions Committee on the Prevention of Miscarriages of Justice released an update to their 2005 Report. The original Report is large in scope and contains many recommendations. It tackles a broad range of issues, including systemic injustices caused by Crown/Police tunnel vision. This update, entitled The Path to Justice: Preventing Wrongful Convictions, reviews prosecutorial practices and makes further recommendations. Interestingly, the update starts with a quote from another British writer of justice, Charles Dickens, in his book The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.

Barnes, Conan Doyle, and Dickens reminds us, in a literary and engaging way, of the importance of justice in our legal system. It is up to us, however, to translate these works into reality.This requires, as stated in the FPT Update, "continued vigilance."

Poetic Justice?

Does poetry have a place in the courtroom? An Ottawa Crown thinks so. In an attempt to convince a judge to convict an accused of an impaired driving charge, the Crown set his submissions to rhyme. Although the judge convicted the accused, she did not mention the use of the unusual literary device. My advice to the Crown: don’t quit your day job.

Poetry and the law are no strangers. Many eminent poets have also been trained in the law such as the American, Wallace Stevens and the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. In Canada, F. R. Scott was a legal scholar who also waxed poetic. He held the position of the McGill Dean of Law in 1961 and was a well-respected constitutional/human rights litigator. Indeed, he was a vocal proponent against the Quebec anti-communist statutes known as the “Padlock Laws.” His poems are beautiful. They are insightful reflections of a proud Canadian and are well worth reading.

But does poetry, for it’s own sake, have a place in the legal arena? It depends on the use. In the Emkeit case, the Crown read an inadmissible and inflammatory poem to the jury on a murder trial. Although the majority of the SCC did not overturn the conviction, the strongly worded dissent by Hall, Spence, and Laskin JJ. suggest they were not amused by the “so-called poem.”

On the other hand, in light of the contextual approach used by the SCC in Charter cases, poetry and other literary material may have a place in elucidating and interpreting Charter rights and values.

For those interested in further reading, there are suggestions at the Law and Literature blog from April.